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The Importance of Doing Nothing

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Cloudscape, Wildomar, California

In an age of constant movement, nothing is so important as sitting still.“– Pico Iyre

This summer I was taking photos of clouds, fascinated by their shapes, something that is uncommon in Delhi’s skies this time of year where mostly what one sees is a haze hanging in the street from the ongoing air pollution. Gavin Pretor-Pinney, a graphic designer from the UK moved to Rome and began noticing clouds in paintings and it made him think he should do something more with clouds. He gave a lecture at an arts festival, and the Cloud Appreciation Society was born. The society post images, poetry and music inspired by clouds, and has a manifesto that essentially declares if we had blue skies every day, it would be monotonous. Clouds are nature’s poetry, expressing mood. Their beauty is overlooked, and contemplating them benefits the soul, the manifesto describes. I’ve got to say, the benefits are certainly enticing.

In his interview with Guy Raz on the TED radio program, Pretor-Pinney explains that gazing at clouds benefits us, and that we should really look up more often. “We need to be reminded that slowing down and being in the present – not thinking about what you’ve got to do and what you should have done, but just being here, letting your imagination lift from the everyday concerns down here and just being in the present. It’s good for you. It’s good for your ideas. It’s good for your creativity. It’s good for your soul.” I imagine staring at clouds does something similar for the mind as going for a walk–it encourages associative thinking and nurtures creativity as a result.

Currently, the air quality at the measuring station across the street of particulate matter in the air at 2.5 is at 253, which causes “significant aggravation of heart or lung disease and premature mortality in persons with cardiopulmonary disease and the elderly; significant increase in respiratory effects in general population,” according to the US embassy air quality data site here in Delhi. It hasn’t been a good day, overall, for cloud viewing, but the idea of finding value in letting the mind wander, allowing it to take a break from thinking about the long list of what needs to get done has got me interested wanting to drift with clouds. Recently, I participated in a guided imagery in which the leader asked people to go in their minds to a place that made them very happy. I went directly to my garden in California, and I visualized myself sitting in the dirt, letting it sift through my fingers. I wasn’t traveling to some fabulous location to dive, wasn’t wandering down a beautiful street in a foreign city or climbing a mountain. I was doing the most mundane thing, doing nothing, really, and was feeling supremely content. What is it about doing nothing that is so satisfying?

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Southern California clouds at sunset

It seems I’m not the only one thinking about the need to simply do nothing, Pico Iyer, known for his writing about global citizenship, in his TEDRadio hour interview, also with Guy Raz, “How Can We Find More Time To Be Still,” says he left New York because he was “making a living there, but wasn’t making a life.” What is more satisfying in life, he says, relationships and quiet exploration–the invisible things. Most people live in cities where the pace is intense. Often work place increases its demands. It is the constant speed of everything we do, Iyre suggests, that creates the yearning for the opposite. “…in an age of acceleration, nothing can be more exhilarating than going slow. And in an age of distraction, nothing is so luxurious as paying attention. And in an age of constant movement, nothing is so urgent as sitting still.”  The desire, the need, to do nothing is felt by many. Lawton Ursey on the Forbes site talks about Andrew Smart’s book Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing. He explains that research shows that when not focused on a specific task, the brain becomes more active, “more organized and engaged in idleness.” This is a positive thing. It seems that focusing too hard on getting things done, might actually make us less efficient. Doing nothing, it appears, is underrated.

When we have to make difficult decisions, when we’re under stress, we are actually less able to see the big picture, less able to think clearly and act out of a wiser, balanced position. What can we do to take back our lives from the pressure of obligations and to create more space? Many people are talking about the need to create space in their lives so they can live a reflective life, but how many of us actually do it? We are admonished to find balance, but the structures and systems we live in make that very difficult. Over 200 years ago, Wordsworth wrote, “The world is too much with us; late and soon,/Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.” It doesn’t seem much has changed in this respect since he penned those lines.

photo (10)When my recent 49 days of purposeful observation ended, the thing I realized is how much I have cramped my life into a corner, and how in need I am of opening up more space for being. My intention was to use the observation time to make more space in my life. Sometimes my “purposeful observation” was literally reduced to a few seconds.  I don’t think anything will open up and change much in my life if I continue to let the pressures of the world around me control my life. I must return to a practice that allows me to learn how to create space, and create life for myself. I suspect most of us can’t move away to a new city right now like Pico Iyre did. If we want more space in our lives to live and move and experience being, perhaps it would help if we could find one simple thing we can begin with where we are, and then start to practice it. For example, I might set a focus for the day, something I am going to purposefully work on, then coming back to it at the end of the day and keeping track of how it went. Something I long for is a sense of spaciousness, so maybe lighting a candle purposefully might be a good focus practice. For others who have a similar need, maybe it is sitting in the doorway sun for 10 minutes in the morning, if you have a house where you can do that, or for others it might be listening to a piece of music with full attention–one small thing to create a crack that will lead to a larger crack in the structure we’ve built that doesn’t makes space for breath, for living the other part of ourselves–our unlived lives, so to speak. Richard Rohr in his article in Sojourners, advocates a daily time of silence. I’m reminded that catholics have a practice of the Examen, and this might be useful for some. We don’t need to do all, be all, have all. Maybe we need to remind ourselves of  E.F. Schumacher’s idea more often, that small is beautiful, as his book title says. It can be enough.

We can be intentional with our time and presence. Creating the conditions for change and then practicing them until they habituate is necessary. All skills take training, even creating space for rest.

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This Day We Are Living–An Experiment in Noticing

Sonnet 73, That Time of Year When Thou Mayst in Me Behold

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

—–

It’s late spring in Delhi, which means the leaves are falling from the trees. Yellow leaves, and gold gather on the streets, pile on curbsides in drifts. The flowers that the city plants in the parks so that that were in full bloom in February and early March, are now growing spindly as stalks lean into each other, heads droop, and their bodies begin to turn to seed. The seeds are their gift for the future, the brown, withered looking things that hold the future generosities of spring. After the six or eight weeks of flowers, fall arrives. Then the months of monsoon–the floods of rain. That’s the season we’re in now, the season between seasons–between the dry and the wet.

When I was attending what was then called Bethel College in St. Paul, MN, my poetry teacher read Shakespeare’s 73 sonnet to us, and asked us to go out and look at the fall leaves–the fiery Dutch elms that grow in profusion throughout the city’s streets, and that crowd along the Mississippi’s river banks. Leave your books, she suggested, and go out and notice them before they are gone. They don’t last long.

A native of southern California, I knew what it felt like to live through the Twin Cities long months of winter’s color deprivation and cold that followed September’s autumn.  For the most part, it seemed to me that Minnesotans loved their snowy winters. I had  heard various people I met there describe how they looked forward to winters–the snowshoeing and cross country skiing, the briskness in the air. But coming from the land of sun, where winters didn’t usually require much more than a light jacket and shoes that covered the toes, that anticipatory attitude was difficult for me to understand. I hadn’t learned to ski or skate, and for me getting bound up in sweaters and mittens, hats, thick socks any time you went out wasn’t something I looked forward to. Change is interesting, but I truly missed the freedom of wandering outside for a stroll, run, or bike ride. So, I followed my teacher’s suggestion, and went out to walk through trees on campus, and visited other campuses along Snelling Ave. whose campuses were thick with trees. I went down by the Mississippi as she suggested. It was glorious–all that color shining in the myriad leaves. All that sugar burning inside them as temperatures turned. The whole world a flame. As my teacher said, the trees were all the more beautiful, for knowing what would come next.

And what came next was winter. Dark branches silhouetted against white for months. Beautiful things often have a way of piercing the heart, of opening us–the last yellow leaf falling from a tree, rainbow color glistening from a spider’s web, the way clouds roll in low over the ocean at sunset. As Dana Jennings says in her NY Times article “Scratching a Muse’s Ears”, about Mary Oliver’s poetry book, Dog Songs, says, there are tears inside of things. Because we know this, it can make our heart ache when we see something beautiful. We’ve all eaten from the tree that lets us know we are not living in the garden anymore–but we know what it looks like, that last leaf falling from the tree before winter, and how it feels to watch it fall, joining the fire floating down the river or resting on the forest floor before it turns to dust.

So, all of you who have sat at your desk all day, I encourage you. Get up, leave your books or your office, you papers and your e-mail, and go outside and notice this day. Find what there is to love in this day, before you have to leave it. Notice life. What is it you are living?

THE TABLES TURNED 
William Wordsworth

Up! up! my Friend, and quit your books;
Or surely you’ll grow double:
Up! up! my Friend, and clear your looks;
Why all this toil and trouble?

The sun above the mountain’s head,
A freshening lustre mellow
Through all the long green fields has spread,
His first sweet evening yellow.

Books! ’tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! on my life,
There’s more of wisdom in it.

And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!
He, too, is no mean preacher:
Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.

She has a world of ready wealth,
Our minds and hearts to bless—
Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,
Truth breathed by cheerfulness.

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:—
We murder to dissect.

Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.

___

Okay, so I took my own advice and got up and went out for a walk. I didn’t have a wood to walk in, so I took a walk around the block where I live. The wisps of clouds turning from pink to salmon against a pale turquoise sky–the kind of sky that is rare in Delhi.

It was a short walk around a city block. The first quarter of the block I couldn’t stop staring up in amazement. The second quarter of the block, I grew aware of the traffic noise as it hustled by.  As I turned the corner, I noticed a billboard that read “Platinum Living” with a sleek, blond-haired woman wearing an elegant low cut black gown and a long strand of pearls leaning back against a comfortable couch. I glanced down at the pair of abandoned black slippers at my feet on the sidewalk and wondered who this ad was aimed at speaking to in a city where a quarter of its population is below the poverty line, 30% live in slums, and in a country where the World Bank estimates that 21% of the deaths in India are related to unsafe water.  As I continued to walk, the acrid smell of burning leaves permeated the air, scratched at my throat, and made me cough. (Sadly, too many things here seem to makes me cough.) By the time I turned the last corner and entered my apartment door again, the sky’s color had drained away.

Wordsworth’s poem admonishes us to go out into nature with a listening heart, one that watches and receives. That is definitely the heart I stepped out of the door with, and is the one I want to hold on to. I live in a city, though. It’s not the same as standing at the ocean’s edge or walking amidst the redwoods. What was I expecting, anyway? In truth, I was just expecting to enjoy the early evening coolness and to take in the color-brushed clouds. I just happened to get the other experiences in addition because they are a part of this environment. The walk makes me wonder, though, can experiencing beauty motivate us to protect it, nurture it? Or are we so used to the traffic, the billboards, the burning leaves and discarded shoes, to the poor living in substandard housing, that we give up on beauty, that we forget to notice those gestures of grace nature gives us even in the city from time to time–those rare moments of clear sky and color-streaked clouds that open our eyes, move us out of our routines, the moments that call us to step out of our brokenness into the possibility of another way of being?

On the other hand, maybe its that very poverty and brokenness around me that encourages me to notice the way the sky sometimes opens into a canvas of shinning color, as it did this evening. Either way, I need those moments of open sky and color. They carry me through winters. The winters I’m talking about don’t always necessarily always come with snow and cold. They can look like a multitude of cities flung across this world, or any place where we are too busy to notice or take care of what nurtures us.